- Charms and Charming in Europe
In his introduction to this volume, Jonathan Roper defines charms as “the verbal element of vernacular magic practice” (p. 1). This is a concise and workable definition, and it establishes charms and charming as encompassing, almost inarguably, the most broadly diffused and commonly practiced kinds of magic in European history (only the equally enormous category of divination might give charming a run for its money). Yet as Roper and several of the authors of the articles collected here note, charms and charming have not received anywhere near the scholarly attention that have been lavished on narrower categories, such as maleficent witchcraft or learned Renaissance magic. The problem is one of sources. While learned magi left their own records, and theologians and prosecutors wrote furiously about the suspected evils of witchcraft, charms were so ubiquitous in common oral culture that they were rarely written down. When they were recorded, it was typically unsystematically, at least until the nineteenth century, when folklorists became interested in preserving what they regarded as important elements of popular culture, and of course those records, too, present certain problems as historical sources.
While the tide has begun to turn, as Roper and several other authors indicate, the modern academic study of charms is still clearly in its infancy. This collection is, therefore, an important introduction to a too much neglected subject. Most of the papers gathered here were presented at a conference at the Warburg Institute in London in early 2003. They are divided into two sections, the first dealing with general “Issues in Charms and Charming,” and the second covering specific “National Traditions.” In fact, however, virtually all the articles deal with fundamental and problematic aspects of the study of charms. As the issues are large, and most of the articles are fairly short, they generally serve to introduce rather than resolve various issues or problems, but this seems reflective of the current state of scholarship.
In the first section, on general issues, T. M. Smallwood explores the transmission [End Page 106] of English charms from the Middle Ages to the modern era, and in so doing addresses numerous fundamental issues of how charms are recorded, what alterations are introduced, and what old elements are typically sustained when they are written down. David Elton Gay, in an article on “The Christianity of Incantations,” then points out that scholarship too often accepts categorizations of charms that originate in the polemics of earlier Christian authorities against supposed superstition or foolish folk-belief. Henni Ilomäki raises the problem of the self in charming. Many charms address an “I,” and charmers must often construct a particular “self” capable of encountering the supernatural forces they seek to manipulate. Finally, Lea T. Olsan draws on the recorded forms of certain charms to attempt to deduce how they may have been remembered in oral transmission and use. Since her argument revolves around particular “semantic motifs” associated with particular needs or purposes a charm could fulfill, she approaches, in a way, the issue of charm typologies that will dominate the second part of this collection.
While each article in the second section of this collection deals with a particular national tradition, they all focus in large part on the question of how charms are to be categorized, either vis-à-vis other charms or, occasionally, in terms of external factors. Two of the six articles mention typologies explicitly in their titles. Owen Davies, whose piece on French charms begins the section, does not, but deals with typologies of French charms nevertheless, as well as drawing some interesting, albeit brief, comparisons to English charms. W. F. Ryan introduces the Russian charming tradition by focusing primarily on its “eclecticism.” He notes that Russia has enjoyed a bit more scholarship on charms than other European lands, although the overall amount of scholarship is still small, but he laments that many studies have only collected and described charms without applying much analysis. Jonathan Roper takes up this theme in his essay on typologies of English charms. He...